I don’t know if there is such a thing as the perfect time of day to finish a book; but as I read the last words of Disgrace, the sun dipping into oblivion beyond the block of flats to the west, I felt the deep satisfaction that comes from having just finished a good book. If it weren’t ironic in this context, I might almost have said “enriched”.
J.M. Coetzee’s 1999 Booker Prize-winning novel is vividly beautiful; without trying to stir up a sensation, it weaves in moral dilemmas and acts of revenge. One act of oppression cannot be avenged by another — this truth, obviously, doesn’t come home to us in such simple terms — but when Coetzee addresses it in this masterful piece of work, it is difficult not to try and make sense of it.
David Lurie, a white professor in Cape Town, succumbs to the demands of the flesh and indulges in an affair with one of his students, Melanie Isaacs. Things go downhill thereafter as he is forced to resign from his post at the University, and he seeks refuge with his daughter, Lucy, who lives on a farm, trying to adapt to a lifestyle he hasn’t quite been able to understand.
An unfortunate event follows, leading him to turn protector instead of finding the peace and care he had hoped for, and Lucy’s actions in the aftermath lead him to question if they are her own way of trying to teach him a lesson, to make him understand what his impulsive acts of lust might have meant to the young woman whose life he must have changed forever.
There isn’t much room for contrition or apology. While Lurie does visit Melanie’s parents to explain his side of the story and apologise for the trouble he might have caused them, he isn’t quite prepared to consider that he might be in the wrong. He pins the reason of his acts down to desire — as much a part of human nature as that of animals. However, he is forced to question his beliefs off and on with the events shaping Lucy’s life.
He finds solace in his work with the local animal shelter, helping out with the injured animals and ensuring that the corpses of the ones put down are treated with respect, taking them down to be incinerated himself. He mulls over his future, having lost his job (which he didn’t particularly enjoy) and the respect of his friends. People who once knew him hesitantly acknowledge his presence or turn away altogether; Lucy’s resolve to stay on the farm all by herself despite the dangers and her baffling decisions confuse him. He wants to protect her despite her resistance.
He tries to work on an opera, taking inspiration from Byron’s mistress, Teresa, envisaging her life in middle age, her craving for the love that had cruelly slipped away from her. A cloud of danger lurks in the distance, of course, but it is something he and Lucy will have to learn to live with.
Disgrace, without overt political references, skillfully melds individual lives with the larger problems dogging South Africa. Coetzee’s writing is graceful and effortless, the portrayal of characters honest without being sentimental. If some of the other Booker winners might have disappointed, Disgrace can atone for their collective failure in good measure.